Four facts about refugees the media ISN’T telling you…

There’s a lot of talk of refugees in the media at present but rather than presenting facts, what the tabloids present is predominantly anti-refugee rhetoricscaremongering and racist/Islamophobic discourse. As a result, many people are worried about the effect of refugees on their local communities and on a wider international scale.

The following statements represent typical “concerns” of certain sections of British/European society fed by the media:

“They’re claiming thousands of pounds of benefits.”

“It’s safe back home for them.”

“It’s just single young men coming over, never any women or kids.”

“We can’t possibly take anymore – why can’t any other countries take them?”

Sound familiar? Well, here’s four myths the media likes to peddle and the real truth that they’re not telling you:

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Speaks volumes doesn’t it! So, next time someone thinks they’ve got their facts right: set them straight! Embrace diversity, protect human rights and welcome your global brothers and sisters! 🙂

Statistics: UNHCR, The Refugee Council (2015)

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Refugees are welcome here: French Jungle diaries (part 1)

On 26th October 2016, the Calais “Jungle” was officially cleared. Yet this didn’t mark the end of the “crisis”. The site may have been shut down but the problems haven’t gone away. Whilst the UK government transferred some young refugees to the UK, many remain cut off from their families in the UK. Other refugees were at the time taken to reception centres across France. Weeks later reports emerged of refugee children who had been taken to reception centres being forced to work on fruit farms and share accommodation with adults. This may seem shocking but the tragic conditions and neglect these children face is an ongoing nightmare following the days and months spent in the squalid jungle by adult and child refugees alike from across the world subsequent to the tragic journeys they took to reach French soil. Here, the only help these vulnerable refugees received was from small scale volunteer groups. No government body or international aid agency was present. Here is the account of Chris Plant – one member of the group Stafford Welcome Refugees (UK) – who along with Paul and Mohamed drove down to Calais themselves in September 2016 to deliver crucial aid gathered by members of the Stafford community prior to the closure of the camp.

When the current refugee crisis flared up, a group of locals in Stafford decided to organise a shipment of aid to the refugees living in squalid conditions in unregulated camps outside the port of Calais. After several weeks of careful preparation, we were finally ready. Three of us shared the driving and had a fairly uneventful drive to Dover. Once you reach Dover though, you become aware that things aren’t as they used to be. Agencies who are normally quite uninterested in your activities were keeping a close eye on those wishing to travel across the Channel. Although all the officials were polite and courteous, it was clear that they were taking note of all traffic in connection to refugees.

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Essential aid items: blankets, tinned and dried foods, fresh fruit and vegetables, scarves and clothes for Muslim women

On arrival at Calais, the first visual impact was made by literally miles of high fencing topped by razor wire. It was bleak and rather surreal. I couldn’t help but imagine that somehow I had strayed into a 1984 Orwellian world – it was all very depressing… My spirits were lifted considerably on our arrival at a large warehouse manned by a truly inspiring group  of young volunteers. They represented just about the best of humanity. They were a multinational group of volunteers from diverse cultures and ethnicities all driven by a shared need to alleviate the suffering of our fellow humans and to demonstrate through real action that decency had not destroyed by the obscenity of corrupt power politics. We proceeded to unload all of the tried and tinned foodstuffs, keeping the rather large quantity of fresh fruit and vegetables for another rather extraordinary enterprise right in the heart of The Jungle. After leaving the warehouse where everything was fairly organised, a few short miles later we came to a very different world. If you didn’t know that you were on the coast of one of the wealthiest most developed presumably “civilised lands” in the world, you could easily imagine that we’d strayed into a shanty town in a developing country. This is not the France that people normally imagine!

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Inside the warehouse – volunteers at work!

Having reached the warehouse just outside the camp, we headed onwards towards The Jungle itself. Upon arrival we were stopped at the entrance by the French CRS police who questioned us about our reasons for coming. After carefully checking the contents of our van they allowed us to proceed. They were coldly efficient throughout our brief encounter. We drove on through… The Jungle was huge. We had to wait for a guide to direct us to our final destination and after a while a cheerful young man or Middle Eastern origin joined us and escorted us through a maze of muddy garbage strewn alleys to our destination – which was truly remarkable.

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Activities in the Jungle and living conditions…

We were then taken to meet Sofinee in the heart of the Jungle. Now, Sofinee is one of those rare individuals whom fate throws your way at time of genuine crisis. A small little Malaysian lady wearing a niqab with only her expressive eyes visible, she radiated personality, energy and unquenchable optimism. She was the life force around which her world revolved. That world was the Kitchen in Calais – a truly inspiring enterprise which she and her husband had created here in the midst of squalor and degradation. Sofinee and her husband had originally journeyed from their home in Durham in the north of England to see the conditions in the Jungle for themselves. Being utterly appalled by the what they found, they decided there and then that they were going to make a difference. From literally nothing, they constructed a kitchen producing hundreds of hot properly cooked meals for those living in the camp. They relied entirely on voluntary donations for supplies, which had never yet let them down.

Fresh fruit and vegetables in toe, alongside scarves and clothes for Muslim women who wanted to retain their sense of modesty, we were chuffed that Sofinee was delighted with our donations, especially with our van load of fresh fruit and vegetables which we had brought the previous night. So, it was with some satisfaction that we bade farewell to our many new friends in Calais, leaving with renewed commitment to be active members of the world wide movement to counter the tidal wave of bigotry, racism and oppression which currently afflicts our world.

Christopher Plant (Stafford Van Aid – Stafford Welcomes Refugees)

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Sofinee and Chris

Stay tuned for part two when Staffordians later return to Calais after the “closure” of the camp and later head over to Dunkirk – another tragic but less well known site where aid groups are working hard to give these vulnerable people a helping hand in their struggle to survive and find hope, security and peace.

Credits and acknowledgements:

Text written by Christopher Plant (Stafford Van Aid – Stafford Welcomes Refugees) (additions and edits: Elizabeth Arif-Fear)

Photography: Paul Jacks, Christopher Plant and Elizabeth Arif-Fear (Stafford Van Aid, Stafford Welcomes Refugees)

Huge thanks to Chris, Paul, Mohamed, members of Stafford Welcomes Refugees and the people of Stafford for all their generous donations, time and efforts which helped to make the trip such a success. To Sofinee, her husband and all the volunteers at Kitchen in Calais, the warehouse and inside The Jungle: fabulous work! God bless!

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Donations needed for Calais!

Stop The War Coalition along with Stand up to Racism, People’s Assembly Against Austerity, War on Want, Unite the Union, Communications Workers Union, Momentum and the Muslim Association of Britain are collecting donations and looking for volunteers for their Convoy to Calais. They are leaving next weekend.

Priority needs include: food (fresh, tinned and dried), men and teenage boys’ clothing, hygiene items and certain women’s items.

A full list is available via the PDF link below:

Convoy Donation List (please also read the sorting guidelines)

Fore more details about the convoy including the timetable and link to register click here. You can also download their leaflet here.

Salam!

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Image credit: Malachy Browne (Flickr)

Ramadan Mubarak – how to support six humanitarian causes this month

Ramadan – the holy month of fasting for Muslims worldwide – is approaching. This is a month of religious devotion, charity and remembrance of those less fortunate than ourselves. Muslims abstain from eating and drinking (amongst other activities) during daylight hours in remembrance of the poor. For many of us, no matter hungry you feel, you know you will eat at sunset. Yet imagine not having anything to break your fast with. Imagine every day being a constant struggle. Many people – Muslim and non-Muslim – around the world are suffering due to poverty, natural disaster, war, persecution and much more. In your very home town, there may be those who go to work hungry, having fed their children but gone hungry themselves as there’s not enough food to go around. You may switch on the TV and thousands of miles away you may see starving refugees fleeing war. People carry on suffering and aid donations are all the more essential, both locally and internationally. Additionally, there are various Muslim (and non-Muslim) groups who continue to be persecuted, discriminated against and even killed. Whether victims of war or persecuted religious minorities, many face difficulty in finding safe shelter and in practising their religion.

So whilst Ramadan starts and we wish fellow Muslims “Ramadan Mubarak” (Happy Ramadan), let’s remember the following people and causes (in no particular order) and call one another to action.

1. The Syrian crisis

Muslims, Christians, Yazidis… millions of Syrians have and continue to suffer due to the Syrian crisis of civil war and religious extremism. Rape, torture, starvation, bombing…the suffering is ongoing. For the displaced Syrians still inside Syria, those living in controlled areas and the millions of Syrian refugees who have fled Syria, the situation in Syria is sad, complex and shows no signs of being resolved any time soon.

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Syrian refugee – Image credit: Bengin Ahmad (Flickr)

You can help by donating money and resources to provide aid both in Syrian and in refugee camps. You can also read more about Syria through my interview with Syrian-Palestinian asylum seeker Khaled – click here.

2. The conflict in Yemen

The Saudi bombings and the Sunni-Shia conflict in Yemen – already the poorest country in the Middle East – have led to more instability for this nation in which men, women and children are continuing to suffer. The war has been going on for over a year and so far more than 3000 civilians have been killed:

[…] the conflict in Yemen […] continues to take a terrible toll, with more than 3000 civilians killed, and 5700 wounded, since it began a year ago. If the violence and fragmentation continue, the people of Yemen face a very bleak future. The war has devastated an already weak infrastructure, with multiple attacks on hospitals and schools. It has opened vast opportunities for groups such as Al Qaeda and so-called ISIL to expand their grasp. Most tragically, the ongoing political unrest, violence and air strikes have created a massive humanitarian crisis. This could trigger refugee flows, further destabilising the region.

Statement by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (10/03/2016)

The lack of public uproar against the Saudi led bombings is deafening and shocking. Innocent children are starving and the world remains shockingly quiet.

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Air strike in Sana’a (11/05/2015) – Image credit: Ibrahem Qasim (Flickr)

To get involved and help innocent Yemenis:

  • Sign the following petitions calling to end the violence: Oxfam, MoveOn
  • Donate: your help can provide essential aid for the Yemeni people

For more information on the war in Yemen, see:

3. The Palestinian crisis

Palestinians face immense ethnic, cultural and religious discrimination, manifesting itself in difficulty in attending school, water shortages, humiliation, torture and even death.

You can support the Palestinians in many ways:

  • Boycott Israeli goods and investments: brands/businesses include Nestle, Marks and Spencer, Starbucks and Coca Cola
  • Support the #CheckTheLabel campaign: make sure you check the label when buying dates to break your fast – don’t buy Israeli dates! You can order the campaign leaflets via the Friends of Al-Aqsa website to hand out at the mosque and raise awareness amongst fellow Muslims and interfaith activists when attending events etc. You can also share the message via social media – get tweeting, posting and sharing!

4. The persecution of Rohingya Muslims

Whilst the media has gone rather quiet, the persecution of the Rohingya people – “the most persecuted refugees in the world” – is ongoing. A report by The Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic (Yale Law School, October 2015) concluded that the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar constitutes genocide:

The Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State have suffered serious and persistent human rights abuses. Myanmar authorities, security forces, police, and local Rakhine actors have engaged in widespread violence, acts of torture, arbitrary detention, rape, and other crimes causing serious physical and mental harm. The scale of these atrocities has increased precipitously since 2012. […] the majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya have been confined to villages in northern Rakhine State or internally displaced persons camps. […]conditions in both northern Rakhine State and the IDP camps are dire: Rohingya lack freedom of movement, access to food, clean drinking water, sanitation, medical care, work opportunities, and education. They live in conditions that appear to have been calculated to bring about their destruction. The acts committed against the Rohingya, individually and collectively, meet the criteria for finding acts enumerated in the Genocide Convention […]

Persecution of Rohinyga Muslims: Is Genocide Occuring in Myanmar’s Rakhine State? A Legal Analysis, p64

To help this persecuted minority, you can:

For more information, check out:

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Around 90,000 Rohingya’s live in cramped shelters in camps near Sittwe – the capital of Rakhine State – Image credit: European Commission DG ECHO (Flickr)

5. The oppression of Uyghur Muslims in China

China’s Muslim minority, the Uyghur community who live in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, have been facing increasing discrimination over the years. The Chinese State has banned face veils, forced certain shopkeepers to sell alcohol, introduced restrictions on beards and in the past banned fasting during the period of Ramadan. This year, the State has declared that there will be no restrictions regarding Ramadan – yet one can never tell given the secrecy and human rights abuses that go on in China.

How you can help:

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Men praying at Id Kah Mosque on Eid al Fitr – Image credit: Preston Rhea (Flickr)

6. The war in Ukraine

If you’d like to help towards the crisis in Ukraine you can:

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Image credit: Guido van Nispen (Flickr)

So there’s six causes that we are all aware of and of course there are many other worthy causes, many groups facing persecution and many more campaigns and petitions. This is simply a brief guide to current urgent and perhaps not so well publicised causes which we can all help towards.

So – brothers and sisters in Islam: Ramadan Mubarak!

And to all readers: check out the tips and get going!

Salam!

 

Image credit:

Feature image: Amila Tennakoon (Flickr)

Expat or immigrant? – Immigrant. Why everybody should experience living abroad

Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked in their shoes.” Each and every persons’ life experiences are unique but until you’ve experienced something it can be difficult (if not impossible) to understand. Even though no two experiences are the same, sometimes you have to try and put yourselves in that person’s shoes. In the case of migrants and refugees this can sometimes be difficult yet all the more important.

There’s a lot of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee discourse around at the moment concerning undocumented migrants, the recent refugee crisis and EU migrants. Lots of people form unsavoury opinions without even any direct experience. Well, I’ve been living in Spain now for over a year. I’ve spent time living for certain periods in a few countries. I’m passionate about social justice, human rights, migrants’ rights and about fighting racism and religious discrimination. I want to talk about my experiences here in Spain as a “white” Caucasian, British (EU) Muslim migrant married to a non-EU, North African Muslim who is a migrant himself and what we’ve witnessed in our time here. There are a lot of labels there. Whilst labels can be counterproductive, essentialist, and encourage both discrimination and narrow views on identity, in order to uncover the different layers of discrimination here in Spain, you have to pick out the different markers of identity and socio-cultural-economic “classification”.

Here’s my experiences of being an immigrant in Spain, of what I’ve lived, learnt, heard and witnessed (of course I can’t speak for everyone or overgeneralise):

  1. As a non-national or “non-native”, the factors which distinguish you and lead to the most discrimination are: colour, economic status, religion and nationality (which incorporates culture).
  2. Racism/discrimination can be multi-faceted and you may sit between communities. I found myself affected by what I believe to be mild Islamophobia yet almost no racism based on my culture or nationality. I tried to compare experiences, histories and stereotypes; trying to judge and understand my situation in relation to Moroccans as North-African and Muslim and with non-Muslim “Western European” migrants here in Spain.
  3. A lot of people really don’t know the difference between an economic/social migrant and a refugee or asylum seeker – this is a political tool and drives racism and stereotypes.
  4. Integration is a TWO WAY process – you have to put in to get out. Locals, in the name of humanity and collectivity; welcome others! Build bonds and collective identities – crush stereotypes and misconceptions. Likewise for non-locals, if you don’t want to put in – why are you there? If you’ve got no choice – remember this: it’s a duty/blessing to give something back. In doing so you may counteract unfair, unjust racial, religious and cultural discrimination and stereotypes and open up opportunities, relations and change mentalities.

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Unfortunately, there’s negativity here: Muslim women being physically and verbally abused (“Moor”, “terrorist”), poverty, destitution… I see destitute migrants, drinking away their sorrows, sleeping on mattresses. Yes, this also happens with locals  but with immigrants is unfortunately common. I’ve also experienced for myself being asked in interviews for English teaching positions on a few occasions about my headscarf, knowing that I’m a native English speaker (not just “British”) – which adheres to their “standard” or “ideal English teacher” persona. Some interviewers added that it wasn’t an issue. Some I know were genuinely curious or unperturbed but one lady added: “What’s your religion?” and no, this wasn’t in a post-interview chat. Although I can’t prove anything, it’s not a good feeling. Some employers simply tell other Muslims that they’d have to take their scarves off. On top of this, I’ve also seen a jobless, homeless Moroccan woman (both a mother and wife) asking for help, running from domestic violence and neglect, pregnant with young children and each with full legal residency, being told there’s “nothing they can do”, being sent one from office to the next, till her and her children end up on a boat home. Yet, despite all of this I have also witnessed the kindness of Spanish police in such situations and of Spanish neighbours, colleagues, parents, students and general members of the public. Each country has its own inner issues – here there are economic struggles – but there is a wider socio-cultural issue that is void of economic reasoning: socio-cultural exclusion.

Multiculturalism appears to be non-existent here. There’s no real sense of “collective identity” – not if you’re Muslim or Arab at least from what I can see. Neither does there appear to be a great appreciation of other cultures – besides tucking in to a plate of couscous or other “world-cuisine” and despite all the Arab-Moor history in Spain in what was once known as Al-Andalus. I’ve heard otherwise but it seems rare, even despite the positive safety and peace of many migrants living here to counteract it (I can’t speak for refugees/asylum seekers unfortunately). What I stand by is that you have to put in to get out – especially when living in such societies. Yes, without a doubt, migrants should be welcomed but on the other hand, when you see the mosque closed during Ramadan – that’s a missed opportunity right there. That’s your chance to reach out to impoverished or curious people here. Budgets are stretched at both ends but that shouldn’t hold back local and migrant communities in reaching out to each other. In terms of Spaniards, apart from Latin Americans and “typical Westerners/Europeans” and the odd exception, I’ve so far only really seen locals “socialising” with alcoholic destitute migrants (one being Kenyan) who must be in similar situations to themselves. On the other side of the fence, I’ve seen those which appear to have turned their back on their own cultural norms or have come across as so assimilated they were unrecognisable as North African or Muslim. You don’t have to drop your own cultural values. Regarding religious values, you’d be a hypocrite in doing so. A Muslim doesn’t need to sell alcohol or ham to be accepted. I stand by my words: Spain – like many European countries but unlike the UK in terms of majority in my opinion – has a reputation of being Islamophobic and racist. Indeed, there are issues regarding colour, nationality/”race”/culture and Islam but not as much as I’d envisaged. There is hope but things do need to change.

Helping hand shakes another in an agreement

It’s through witnessing, feeling and living all these moments that you see and feel what others go through. I’ve always said to my husband: “Racists should go abroad and see it’s not easy”, “You can’t hate people you’ve met and really know – people need to travel”. Indeed, some of the friendliest Spanish folk I’ve met here are elderly Spaniards who used to live in Morocco. They knew it on a personal level – they’d grown up there, they’d made Moroccan friends. So, if you’re up for an adventure, go abroad and see what life is like for others. Go “native” – don’t go “expat” or “tourist” in your bubble of sun soaked fellow countrymen or tourists. Put yourself out there. If you’re staying put, reach out to the migrant and refugee community. It’s not easy for them. Build bridges. We’re all human. A smile can and does go a long way. If you’re living abroad, reach out to the local community!

Salam!

Image credits:

Images are re-published under a Creative Commons licence